Start from a Hopeless Place

landscape-768423_640I’ve had it pointed out to me that if you listen to a lot of my talks or read a lot of what I’ve written, you find I’m just saying the same things over and over again. I feel that as well. So when I stumbled on this passage from Dogen’s “Record of Things Heard,” my first thought was I should look for something else—it’s a category of thing I talk about all the time. But the truth is that even if it’s the same old thing, I get excited about it. There are some things that I think we can’t drive home enough.

Dogen instructed,

Zen master Dai-e said, “You must practice the way with the attitude of a person owing a vast debt and being forced to return it despite being penniless. If you have this frame of mind, it is easy to attain the Way.” In the Shinjinmei, we read, “The supreme way is not difficult—just refuse to have preferences.” Only when you cast aside the mind of discrimination will you be able to accept it immediately. To cast aside discriminating mind is to depart from ego. Do not think that you learn the buddhadharma for the sake of some reward for practicing the buddha way. Just practice the buddhadharma for the sake of the buddhadharma. Even if you study a thousand sutras and ten thousand commentaries on them, or even if you have sat zazen until your cushion is worn out, it is impossible to attain the Way of the buddhas and patriarchs if this attitude is lacking. Just casting body and mind into the buddhadharma and practicing along with others, without holding onto previous views, you will be in accordance with the Way immediately.

Dogen starts with this: “You must practice the way with the attitude of a person owing a vast debt and being forced to return it despite being penniless.” For people who struggle daily with actual debt, this may hit pretty close to home. But Dogen is addressing monks, who wouldn’t have had this particular problem.

What is the attitude of a person who must pay back a debt and has nothing to do it with, or who sees no end? What is the level of acceptance? What is the clarity in that? Dogen doesn’t say, “You must practice the way with the mind of someone who owes a vast debt and is trying to find a way out of it,” or “You must practice the way with the mind of someone who knows there must be a loophole.” It’s this: you must practice as if you have a responsibility that you cannot imagine ever getting out from—ever. How do you wake up knowing there is no end to your work? How do you wake up knowing that everything that you seem to receive, you are then obligated to give away? You know this is good Buddhism because it sounds so bad on the surface; but in fact, what he’s saying is something beautiful.

Later, Dogen says—and this is a kind of refrain for him—”Do not think that you learn the buddhadharma for the sake of some reward for practicing the buddha way. Just practice the buddhadharma for the sake of the buddhadharma.” To understand this is to understand the whole thing. But it’s also the hardest thing.

When I was a kid, I would go to the supermarket and look at all the breakfast cereals, and I could see at a glance which ones were for grownups and which ones were for kids. How? The cereals that were for kids had a prize. There was something at the bottom. There was a reward. If I made my way all the way to the bottom of a box of Froot Loops, then, in addition to the myriad rewards of having eaten all that sugar, I got some sort of plastic toy. I knew there was something waiting for me.

But the cereals for grownups? The only reward was fiber. Fiber forever, all the way down. We understand this; intuitively, we grasp this distinction between what is for kids and what’s for adults. It is one of the easiest litmus tests we can apply to our lives.

When we talk about this in the context of this tradition, we often speak in terms of “being buddha”—that in this tradition, the ground is not that we are learning to be buddha, not that we are moving toward being buddha, but that in fact we are starting from the place of accepting that we are buddha, and that there is a responsibility that comes from being buddha. And we move from there; that’s Step One. It’s not a prize. But if that’s too much to take in—and if you’re a normal person, it might be—back up, and start with the idea of just being an adult. It’s the same.

There has to be some moment in your life in which you acknowledged to yourself that you are an adult. Maybe you even remember it. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet. And exactly like acknowledging that you’re buddha, in the very moment when you acknowledge that you’re an adult, you also acknowledge that you cannot go back. You might spend an evening or a weekend acting like you’re not an adult, but you can no longer pretend to yourself that you are not one. It’s not a part-time job. It’s your role. And when you admit to yourself that you are an adult, you acknowledge, primarily, that you have a responsibility. It’s not about what you wear, or how you speak, or the kind of job you have. It’s accepting responsibility—not just to your life but to everything to which you are connected. You have a responsibility to everything you affect. And what this tradition says is that everything you affect is everything.

To accept who you are, to accept your status in the world, is to accept that you have a responsibility, one that is too big for there to ever be a way out. There is no other side. There is no point at which you have paid your debts. There is no moment at which you are permitted to regress. To admit to being an adult—to admit to being buddha—is to agree to what has always been your situation. It’s to say, “OK. I won’t fight this.”

When you come to this practice, when you come to the zendo, when you come to the cushion, when you come to Buddhism, it’s natural that you want something: to be a certain kind of person, or to have a certain kind of insight, to feel a kind of change. But we cannot say, in an honest way, that if you dig deep enough there’s a prize. There’s no prize. This is not cereal for kids.

Imagine, though it may be hard, that you’re taking care of your spouse or your best friend at the end of their life. Imagine everything that entails: all of the work, all of the frustration, all of the love. All of the expectation that comes to you. If you see it all, it’s overwhelming. Now, if I’m trying to encourage you in that role, I can tell you something like “You know, if you follow through on this, you’ll be a stronger person,” or “If you see this through, perhaps you’ll become kinder. Perhaps your heart will open.” But if you’re really doing that job, you know—you know how hollow it is for me to tell you that the work is about you and what you will get. It’s transparent. It’s obvious. You know that it’s a lie. Even if what I’m saying is true, it’s still a lie.

In the same way, I can try to tell you that you should take up this path because it’s going to transform you, or because it’s going to show something to you that an ordinary person can’t see. But if you have taken that first step of knowing you’re an adult, then you know I’m full of it—I’m just trying to convince you to do what you already understand you have to do.

By the way, that thing that you have to do, that role that you have to play—it doesn’t have to look like this, like Zen. That’s not the point. It doesn’t have to smell like incense. What this practice offers, for some, is a way of framing that responsibility, a way that feels useful because the responsibility, felt in its totality, is too big. How do you even start? How do you manage it? This practice is one structure for taking that on; it’s one kind of guidebook. But it’s not the only one. And when it’s really working, it’s working outside of anything that looks like practice. It’s invisible.

“Even if you study a thousand sutras and ten thousand commentaries on them, or even if you have sat zazen until your cushion is worn out…”

We fall into thinking sitting is medicinal or magical or that its effects are somehow proportionate to the time we put in. Some people like to do the math to figure out how many hours they’ve sat; you can read books by Zen teachers that begin with “I’ve sat 35,000 hours.” Who cares? That’s a ridiculous thing to say. To imagine that zazen is quantifiable, or that your responsibility is quantifiable, is to imagine that if you just sit 36,000 hours, then you will finally find that prize—it’s just one layer down. Dogen says, though, that even if you do this, “it is impossible to attain the Way of the buddhas and patriarchs if this attitude is lacking.” “This attitude” is the attitude of responsibility. So the opposite is also true: if this attitude is not lacking, if this acceptance is true, that means that you are on the Way. Period. There’s nothing more to it.

This comes from a talk given at Zen Nova Scotia; the original can be found on the ZNS podcast

5 comments on “Start from a Hopeless Place

  1. David Guy says:

    All Dharma teachers say the same thing over and over. Larry Rosenberg once told the story about the Korean teacher Seung Sahn, who was teaching one time and a student stood up and said, Every time I come here you say the same thing. Week after week I come and you say the same thing.”
    Seung Sahn looked at him and said, “Yeah. Have you done it yet?”

  2. Alex Genjun Rogowsky says:

    The idea of immense responsibility reminds me of the novel The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. In it, the protagonist can unintentionally change reality by dreaming about it while he’s asleep. He can change small details of reality or even change history on a huge scale. At the beginning he is doing everything to avoid sleeping so he can avoid the responsibility of altering reality. I won’t give away how it ends, though. It’s interesting to wonder how we would wield power like that.

  3. Marcus Barlow says:

    One part of becoming an adult (especially an older adult) is realizing 100% that we all die. When we are dropped into the ground all debts are washed away, all baggage is lost, all of the hours of sitting are gone. If you can realize this deeply in your everyday life I am not sure why one should worry about this arduous practice of letting go . Go outside sit under a tree and listen to a bird.

    I keep hearing this same refrain in Zen for over 25 years.

  4. Jakusho says:

    One thing I learned is that you can avoid being an adult all you want, but it will make you sick running. The debt of your responsibility will pursue you like an assassin, and you have to run ever faster and perform increasingly-complex mental gymnastics to stay ahead of it, but eventually you trip, it catches you, and you have to deal with all of it or get wounded deeply and run again.

  5. Ed says:

    Thank you! This reminds me of Maezumi Roshi’s 3 teachings, which he repeated all the time: Don’t deceive yourself – Don’t make excuses – Take responsibility

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